Better together: why FE and HE must unite to survive

Mergers should be embraced as the two sectors are stronger together, writes Ross Anderson, acting director of the UAL Awarding Body

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Higher and further education belong together. This is not just hard economics. The dynamic interplay between these two levels is right for students, right for teaching and it reflects the heritage of the sector.

The dust has now settled on the chancellor’s comprehensive spending review and the feeling throughout both the FE and HE sector has to be that it could have been much worse. It might, you think, be a good time to permit ourselves a sigh of relief.

But in spite of George Osborne granting a stay of execution, both sectors continue to undergo significant pressures. Both sectors are adapting to the marketisation of education, while implementing previous cuts and participating in large-scale structural change.

FE, in particular, has to do a lot more with a lot less: fewer staff, less contact time and reduced resources. Let’s not forget that the adult skills budget has been cut by 35 per cent since 2009.

These difficulties are, yes, alarming. They are also a call to action. Straitened economic circumstances bring with them challenges, but they also bring opportunities, and particularly opportunities for collaboration.

Benefits for learners

The government has set out the environment in which we will have to operate; now it is time for FE and HE to work together and deliver positive outcomes for both sectors and for those who are learning within them.

Many universities have a long, strong – but often ignored – history in further education, and I foresee a strong future. Eight years ago, University of the Arts London set up its own Ofqual-approved awarding organisation, the UAL Awarding Body, with the aim of having a positive impact on pre-degree arts education.

It has nearly 120 approved institutions, and last year registered more than 30,000 students. FE’s desire to collaborate with HE is clear.

We also have a crucial role as the facilitator of a national community of educators, by encouraging collaboration across our FE and HE partners, disseminating good practice and working to drive up standards in the delivery of arts qualifications across the FE sector.

The open, professional dialogue between all of our partners is key, and the awarding body’s ability and desire to be responsive, with the full support of the university, sets it apart from other similar organisations. As well as taking a proactive stance, the HE sector is also responding directly to demand from the FE sector; for example, by providing high-quality CPD for teachers and tutors.

These courses seek to encourage creative and innovative delivery, which is challenging in the face of performance tables and other measures which discourage this.

It is undeniable: the educational landscape has been irrevocably altered, not only for FE and HE, but also for those seeking to learn and develop at college or at university, and for those seeking to employ young people.

While the future contains many unknowns, we must look towards mergers, acquisitions and collaborations, safe in the knowledge that there has been a dynamic interplay between further and higher education for decades. To ensure the brightest possible future for FE, HE and employers, we need to communicate, collaborate and take the initiative.

This is an article from the 22 January edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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